Nowhere have we more fruitful illustration of this demarcation between skill and the more subjective element of design, than in comparing the historical models which have made bookbinding renowned, with the diffusive examples of binding executed by the majority of modern binders. The old binder obtained results with his tools which would not be tolerated today from a technical standpoint, but the artist who designed the magnificent bindings those tools combined to render, did his work with an excellence the influence of which has been reflected with undiminished splendor ever since his epoch. The distance between conception and execution is indeed great; as great when viewed from the standpoint of ancient design as it is when viewed from the standpoint of modern execution. The artistic advantage is in most instances on the side of the ancient; for it is the spirit, the harmony, the taste, the intellectual effort displayed in a well conceived, and properly contrasted design, which will always be the standard by which its value will be gauged, not, as many binders presume, the tediousness of its execution or its richness. A binder may combine thousands upon thousands of the smallest stamps, dots or bits of line into a design and thereby demonstrate to a certain extent his technical skill, his patience in toil, and his expertness as a finisher, but if the quality that appeals to the intellect has received no consideration in the treatment and the result is merely mechanical, such as might be produced by a machine, then the binding cannot claim a place among the artistic productions of the period.
In the endeavor to produce something very superior and elegant, many binders are but too apt to incline towards richness rather than purity and chasteness of style. They forget that the struggle between lines and forms must not be carried on anywhere but in their own mind; that in the design the lines and forms must harmonize with other lines and other forms, and meet them in friendly cooperation rather than in fierce competition and conflict. There are certain definite principles inseparable from the true art that must never be lost sight of. These furnish the boundaries within which all design must necessarily develop boundaries which, be it observed, are merely to prevent degradation and imaginative vagary, and are not devised to limit the upward movement or free expansion of the energy which constitutes the life of art. An acquaintance with the elements of geometrical figure work, found in their perfection in proportions of the human figure, might furnish the solution of the problem. The elements which in their originality made the distinctive styles of past epochs would then emanate from the study and delineation of the human figure and assume form in the trained artistic thought and creative power of the binder so educated, whose best attributes should be refined taste, imagination, historic knowledge and manual skill of the highest quality.
It is by means of taste that the decorous harmony of a composition is arrived at and the elements selected to constitute it. It is by means of imagination that originality is effected and the finished result made to glow with the thought and emotion of the artist. It is by means of knowledge that forms are built up out of constituents, either near or far removed in point of time and usage or dissected out of the voluptuous plenty of natural productions, and it is by means of manual skill that the finished product proclaims its maker to be a master binder of high standing.
The question as to whether book decoration should be treated pictorially, conventionally or formally, is one easily answered. None of the best specimens of the past masters of the craft show pictorial decoration; the art is essentially one of plane treatment. Conventionalism, to adapt a figure from the ancient Hebrew polity, is a city of refuge within the boundaries of which the decorator is always safe. Neither the inevitable reaction of imaginative excesses nor the insipid results of a servile adherence to ready made forms in nature may enter here; a perfect immunity from the destructive tendencies of pseudo art the deadliest enemy which the user of ornament can have is certain.
We of today are hearing a great deal of talk about the desirability of naturalesque elements in decoration and of the astonishing influence of imagination when impelled along these lines; but we must not forget that too great freedom in such directions will result upon the one hand in mere imitation and upon the other hand, provided the creative faculty be unrestricted, in vicious degeneracy of form and motive. Extensive familiarity with floral forms in nature and the elemental data which she spreads so profusely upon every hand, undoubtedly tends to correct a certain reticence in which man’s inherent poverty of invention culminates; but it is rather in the conversion of such natural forms into ornament than in use of them as material to be copied that the art binder is enriched, his art individualized, and his motives harmoniously adapted to the subject they beautify.
Formalism in art binding, or the tendency to adhere to established precedents as to treatment, or to preserve the principles underlying naturalesque forms while freeing one’s self from imitation from the forms themselves, becomes less offensive in connection with an art which should be essentially progressive; but we fear the term “conventional” and associate with it all that is uninspired, devoid of vigor or independent character, and servile. In an art and handicraft like bookbinding, where great styles of ornamental expression stand arrayed against the ambitious worker who dreams of a creative touch which shall result in a style peculiar to his epoch, the problem is the same as it is elsewhere in the boundless field of decoration; the binder must either be an impressionist, forswear all allegiance to the time honored classics, and blast his own path, or he must be a classicist and forever harp upon the well tuned lute strings of the past masters. But what is called inspiration is far more liable to be embodied in the products of the former than in the outcome of the latter. Subservience to details closes the inner eye, which energizes only when pure form is contemplated. Technical skill and artistic power thus directed will have far deeper influence than the aim to work rough material into a bewildering example of ingenious design. To produce what will attract the attention unduly by its novelty and skill rather than arouse that inexplicable feeling which seeks not to analyze its fascination, is but to accentuate the difference between pseudo and true art.
There are many practical illustrations of this assertion at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where the products of the entire world are shown and with them the marvelous progress of the binder’s art.